FOR AHMED MADFAI, the occasion was more like attending one of his country's local Peoples Congress meetings than a chic media event in Georgetown. He had been waiting to speak to this audience since he arrived in Washington last May, and he felt he had something important to say.
Madfai is charge d'affaires and chief of the Libyan embassy in Washington. His audience at the Pisces Club was the American press: correspondents from the three commercial networks, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (young Arthur Sulzberger) and the wire services. His subject: the sincere aspirations of the Libyan people.
Madfai was grateful for the chance to speak, admittedly practicing his English. He was direct, not deliberative, more like the army officer he used to be than the diplomat he is now.
"We are a small country, as we say. We were controlled by the Italians... Fascists; 1 1/2 million were killed from our country. Then World War II Thanks because it came," he said, composing his English words with Arabic grammar. "After that we got our independence, and now we are a free country."
The end of World War II had special meaning to then 13-year-old Madfai. His father was a Turkish army officer who had fought alongside Omar Mukhtar -- the Patrick Henry of Libya -- in the 1911 war against the Italians. His father went into exile in Tunisia in 1924 and returned to Libya when the British and allied troops were victorious in 1945.
"The Italian government didn't leave us educated," Madfai said. "When we got liberation, there were only about five or six people that were educated and had a university degree." That was in 1949. The country was poor, and although it was the first country granted independence from colonial rule under the United Nations charter, its destiny was of little concern to the developed world. Today, with a $3.6 billion oil-trade balance of payments surplus with the United States, Libya has 3,000 students in universities in this country alone.
Its economy is healthy now. Of its $12 billion GNP, about 48 percent comes from the export of oil. Madfai points out that at least 40 percent of those exports are to the United States, accounting for 11 percent of the total U.S. consumption (twice the amount imported from Iran). That enormous wealth and the country's sparse population of just 3 million souls, spread in a territory 2 1/2 times the size of Texas, has helped stabilize the government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
On Sept. 1, 1969, Qaddafi, then 27, led a cadre of militant young army and air force officers in the overthrow of pro-American King Idris I, ushering the country into a new era of Islamic revolution and all-out support for struggling liberation movements from Palestine to Southern Africa.
Among world leaders, Qaddafi's reputation in the United States is about as low as Idi Amin's. He is known as the sponsor of terrorist squads aimed at Israel and even at some of his fellow Arab leaders. Nonetheless, the Libyan colonel is trying to build more normal relations with the West, including America.
The recent visit of a Libyan diplomatic mission grabbed headlines only because of the presence of president Carter's brother, Billy, but Madfai works full-time arranging similar exchanges.
An Outspoken Diplomat
MADFAI GREW UP in the remote mountain town of Kikla, which is now a two-hour, 50-kilometer drive from Tripoli on wide, modern, paved roads past the regional capital of Ghiryan. Electric power lights even the remotest new school or mosque, and every Saturday color television sets in hotel lobbies and business establishments broadcast Qaddafi's favorite sport -- equestrian jumping.
Like many of Libya's relatively young government officials, Madfai has a manner that reflects Qaddafi's own striking resemblance to the Fidel Castro style of outspoken diplomacy. Like both men, Madfai was partly educated in the West. He lived and studied at a New Jersey army base in 1963. Three of his eight children now attend Bethesda secondary schools.
"Now we have something," Madfai explained to the reporters, "you can call it a complex, but it's not a complex, it's experience from that [colonial] time. Now this is why we think that we have a responsibility to support other nations, other countries who are struggling to get their freedom and liberation -- such as the Palestinians or other nations in Africa, or Asia, or South America.
"The U.S. does not want to sell us a lot of things. Planes, they stop it. Trucks, they stop it. Electronics, they stop it. Computers, they stop it. They even stopped the [sale of] Japanese firefighting helicopters for humanitarian purposes." The Japanese helicopters were equipped with American engines which were denied export licenses, he said.
"We are trying to do our best to have good relations with the United States, but we leave it to the American people," Madfai said. "I'm sure the future will be much better. When I talk with our friends in the United States, all of them say 'terrorism.' We are not terrorism. Or if we are terrorism, we would not be here. We are not Communists. If we are Communists, we would not be here and asking your friendship. But we are a free country, asking for friendship with all nations.
"We want to talk. [but] we have our principles. We cannot change our principles. We cannot move from what we think is right. We are in Libya, supporting the Palestinians and some African liberation movements, and we don't like Zionism. We don't want you to be on our side, we just want you to know the truth."
Last fall, when 200 Americans visited Tripoli for an Arab-American "dialogue" at Qaddafi's invitation, the colonel set the theme which Madfai is pursuing here in Washington.
"This dialogue should be regarded as a room in a large building to be completed some day," Qaddafi said. "For there is no interest for neither the Arabs nor the Americans to continue the misunderstanding and enmity between them."